Economic forces are disincentivising women from having babies everywhere
The Chinese government has announced that every family may now have three children. This policy change responds to a cratering fertility rate and looming demographic crisis that isn’t confined to China, but replicated all over the developed world.
China’s fertility rate in 2020 was 1.3 children per woman. This is worse than the 2020 US total fertility rate of 1.6, a figure much the same in the UK — and that was already falling before Covid struck.
In the West, the collapsing birth rate is often attributed to ideology, in the form of selfish feminism. But while China does have a feminist movement, this emerged relatively recently and is rooted in the one-child policy, which redirected resources toward girls that would in traditional Chinese society have been reserved for their brothers.
Along with this came ‘filial piety’, the traditional Confucian duty to support parents in old age. The upshot is a generation of women reluctant to have babies, especially when their prospective partners still see childcare as women’s job.
So whereas we imagine feminism caused falling birthrates in the West, it resulted from falling birth rates in China. Perhaps, then, neither is strictly a cause-and-effect relationship. What both settings have in common is the material condition of technological advance and economic competition.
Technology replaces functions that were previously performed via laborious, cooperative effort; think of Liverpool’s thousands of dockers, now replaced by a handful of gantry operators (or even robots) in a container port. Or think of women hand-washing clothing, now replaced by an army of white goods. This is all good inasmuch as it takes back-breaking labour out of life, but drives social atomisation as a side-effect.
Similarly, the push for ever greater economic competition fragments social units: this study showed how ‘filial piety’ is in growing tension with economic pressures that drive urbanisation and labour mobility. So technological and economic advances increase material wealth — but chip at social bonds. And the most irreducible such bond, the only one that really can’t be replaced by staff or robots, is the one between mother and child.
You can hardly blame women for balking at a type of commitment that feels ever more like swimming against every economic and cultural current. More bluntly: high-tech capitalism (whether in its state-run or “free-market” variants) is inimical to babies, even as it relies on women continuing to produce and raise them.
The liberal Western response to this tension hopes that individuals and families will find solutions. The top-down Chinese one deploys heavy-handed policy vehicles. Time will tell which approach is more effective. But if social fragmentation and economic competition keep incentivising hyper-individualism as the key to survival, this will exert ever greater downward pressure on women’s willingness to compromise their individual autonomy by having children. In turn, then, we may see fertility politics become increasingly salient, while mitigating policies could begin to tip beyond ‘nudge’ and towards coercion.